Bats in the belfry … in the toilet … and in Batman research

Around the Nation

by Tom Van Dusen

I’m very fond of bats. I like the way they look with those fuzzy coats and pointy teeth, the pug noses, I admire their fortitude in the face of adversity, appreciate their bug-eating environmental contribution, and they don’t scare me.

I never think they’re suddenly going to go all vampire and latch on to my throat!

I’ve had some fascinating encounters with bats. Going back to the early days of the Russell Association for the Performing Arts when plays were mounted in the village United Church, a bat actually swooped down from the belfry while the actors were in full flight, causing quite the disturbance. But the show must go on… and it did!

Years later, in a house I co-owned in Cardinal, I discovered a bat in the toilet. Assuming it had drowned while trying to get a drink, I did what we would all do… I flushed! Much to my dismay, as the bowl drained, the soggy bat began moving its wings against the tide and remained afloat. I used a margarine container to fish it out, took the bat outside and laid it against the base of a very tall tree.

Then I watched mesmerized as that water-logged bat used the bones in its wings which apparently work like fingers to claw its way up that tree and out of sight in the canopy. That’s where my admiration for a bat’s strength and determination took hold.

Several times I’ve captured a visiting bat either by gently swatting it down with a towel and bundling it, or cupping it in a container and releasing it outside while any women present ran around screeching and swiping at their hair. I’m proud to say that, to my knowledge, I’ve never injured a bat during an extraction.

I’m a live-and-let live kind of guy. I know by first-hand observation that bats have roosted in the attics of at least two houses that I’ve owned and that was fine with me. I figured I was getting extra bug extermination out of the arrangement.

There may be one guy around these parts that appreciates bats even more than I do. That would be Dr. Brian Hickey of the Cornwall-based St. Lawrence River Institute who emphasizes that it’s an important time for people to learn more about the world’s 1,000 species of bats, “one of the most diverse and ecologically important groups of mammals in the world.”

Nicknamed “Batman” and “The Bat Guy”, Hickey specializes in behavioural and physiological variation in red and hoary bats in response to changing environmental conditions. As Hickey mentioned last week during the institute’s online annual report presentation, that he does this for an organization dedicated to ensuring a vibrant river for future generations sometimes surprises even him.

It makes sense because bats are a great barometer of overall health in any ecosystem. For example, Hickey is supervising a study by Master’s Student Bailey Bedard of mercury contamination on genetic mechanisms bats use to cope with high levels of the chemical, research that could have broader applications.

As part of Batman’s ongoing efforts on behalf of his favourite creature, more than 170 bat houses have been erected across Eastern Ontario and he continues to raise awareness about their usefulness and decline through public presentations and citizen involvement.

The pandemic has interrupted the flow to some extent but the work goes on, shifting from handling little brown bats to monitoring them remotely with ultrasonic detectors.

Meanwhile, I’ll remain involved the old-fashioned way, springing into action with a towel or margarine container whenever a bat rescue is required.

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